The Story of a Rather Silly Man

Yesterday David Cameron dropped in on a struggling South London school that has recently been transformed, thanks to an army of volunteers working one-to-one with the children several times a week under the auspices of the London Evening Standard campaign Get London Reading. Officially, he was there to open a new library underwritten by a Ukrainian billionaire, furnished by Selfridges and stocked by five leading publishers, who must have been pleased to find a tax-efficient way to offload some of their surplus stock. In an apparently spontaneous development, Cameron even bumped into the House of Commons Sergeant at Arms, Jill Pay, who is one of the volunteers.

What does a Sergeant at Arms do? Well, Mr C explained to the children, “…if you want to stop us politicians talking rubbish…and passing crazy laws…just keep Jill here.”

So perhaps the appropriately named Ms Pay could have a word with him. Perhaps she could tell him that if he really means it when he tells parents, “However busy you are, read to your children,” he could stop libraries from closing, and support Bookstart, an effective programme that gets books into the hands of very young children, and almost collapsed when its budget was threatened by a £13m cut last year. Perhaps he would arrange for people on Jobseeker’s Allowance to volunteer as reading helpers in local schools, not just for an hour here and there, but for long enough not just to start up a library, but to run it.

Because that’s the problem, Mr Cameron. The 1,500 books that have been donated to St Mary’s will languish on the shelves unread, or disappear entirely, if nobody is being paid to look after them. Yes, I said “paid.” Volunteers come and go. Who is going to find the money for a database so the school actually knows where those books are, and when a class in Y3 is doing the Ancient Romans next term you can find the right resources for them? You can get a purpose-built package , but it’ll cost you a more than a grand to install and several hundred pounds a year to run. And believe me, you’d need a lot of volunteers to do the equivalent on 6 x 4 index cards. I know, I’ve tried.

Oh, and while you’re at it, Mr Cameron, could you do something about the way that the school day is so tightly structured that teachers struggle to find 20 minutes a week for a class of five-year-olds to come in and choose their books? Yes, their parents could do it after school, but someone has to be there and see where those books are ending up. And, by the way, the parents of the kids at St Mary’s speak 27 different languages. I’m sure the ones who are struggling with their English will get a lot out of Five Children and It and The Blue Fairy Book (both Folio Society titles, by the way).

Mr Cameron, do you know what your children are actually reading? I don’t mean when you nip home early for a publicity stunt. I mean, what they’d choose to read? Because if they’re anything like the kids in my school, it’ll be Diary of A Wimpy Kid, Star Wars Adventures and the Daisy Meadows Rainbow Magic series. I’d be willing to bet that none of the publishers donated those to St Mary’s, and why should they? They’re businesses, and those books are selling in millions to children whose parents can afford to buy them. By all means encourage every child to aspire to the heights of the Folio Society classics, but it won’t happen overnight. Particularly if there’s no money to pay a librarian, the teachers are too busy to help children make suitable reading choices and the local library closed months ago.

It’s so much easier to make parents feel that it’s all their fault that their children are failing, isn’t it? Perhaps Ms Pay could have a little word with you. Because, you know what? I think you’re being rather silly.

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4 thoughts on “The Story of a Rather Silly Man

  1. Excellent post! You are so right, there is much more to running a library than simply making a few books available. I remember when I was growing up, in an ordinary farming community in Canada, that there was more often than not no one to staff the school library, and so all those books were behind a locked door. I believe that has changed for that particular school now, but for so many children books remain behind a locked door, whether a literal or a figurative one.

    I wish you well in your work to ensure the future of libraries.

    (And I’m grateful for the circuitous route that led me to your blog — my morning “google alert” on children’s literacy led me to the Guardian blog that had featured this post, which then led me to your blog. I’ve now followed your blog and look forward to future posts.)

  2. A very good post, it’s amazing how very stupid the politicians seem intent on making themselves by simply not looking at more than one item at a time. I know men are a bit shite at multitasking but most of us are now able to breathe and read at the same time.

  3. “Perhaps he would arrange for people on Jobseeker’s Allowance to volunteer as reading helpers in local schools, not just for an hour here and there, but for long enough not just to start up a library, but to run it.”

    This would be infinitely more valuable than making them volunteer (as recently documented by one ‘NEET’ on the Guardian) for profit-making companies like Poundland, and it would be great if it led to paid employment for them (if the library proved to be sustainable, a case could be made for additional gov’t funding to pay the folks involved, or of course it would be excellent on CVs while they look for other work). It would probably be infinitely more satisfying for unemployed people too, contributing to something worthwhile and seeing the fruits of their work in the developing reading ability of the kids they help, but I doubt Cameron is particularly interested in that.

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